Portrait of a Lady on Fire: 'There is something very intricate between ideas and sensuality and emotions in the movie'
- James Mottram
- 21 February 2020
French director Céline Sciamma and the lead actors from her highly acclaimed fourth film discuss emotions, ideas and criticism
From its bow in Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, to recent nominations at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, it's been a remarkable ride for Céline Sciamma's sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire. An 18th century-set French-language lesbian love story, about a female painter (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel), it's been feted wherever it's played. Well, almost. 'Cahiers du Cinéma gave me zero,' grumbles Sciamma, when we meet in London. 'Zero means you're an enemy. They just despise me.'
The aforementioned French film journal may well not like Sciamma, but there can be no doubt this fourth movie of her career is a major step up. 'There is something very intricate between ideas and sensuality and emotions in the movie … it's so well balanced,' says the 31-year-old Haenel, who starred in Sciamma's 2007 debut Water Lillies. She returns here as Héloïse, a betrothed woman who refuses to sit for a portrait due to be sent to a man she's never met. Scripted by the 39-year-old Sciamma, the film feels like it belongs in a novel or an historical account, but it came fully formed from her imagination. 'I wanted to craft a love story from scratch, especially because it's pretty rare that a period piece is not adapted from a book or historical events,' she explains. 'But the fact is, this book hasn't been written; there is no book to adapt. That's the whole point actually.'
While they may have slipped into obscurity, the history of female painters from this era is rich, such as Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who painted Marie Antoinette. 'As they were so numerous, I wanted to invent one to talk about all of them,' says Sciamma. Her tale sees Merlant's painter Marianne instructed by Héloïse's mother to befriend and secretly sketch her daughter, before feelings unwittingly spark between them.
Arriving in the era of gender equality and #MeToo, Portrait of a Lady on Fire throws off the shackles of period drama to feel utterly modern, despite the use of luminous natural lighting and costumes that are accurate to the time. 'I think the movie asks questions that are not often asked,' adds Haenel. 'It's very serious about its ideas. But it's also joyful and gives space to imagination.' With Portrait filmed along the stormy Brittany coastline, could it have been made by a male director? 'I don't think it can be made by a man, because it's an experience that only women can live,' says Merlant. 'It's about the oppressed sex. It's a woman's story with a woman's vision. If it would have been made by a man, it would be significantly different.'
Sciamma claims it was not her intention to craft a 'feminist gaze manifesto'. But much like her 2014 all-female urban drama Girlhood, she naturally gravitates towards stories from a woman's perspective. Nor is she apologetic about the idea that her story portrays a female utopia, something that doubtless annoyed Cahiers du Cinéma. 'I've experienced sometimes, in my life, a world without men,' she smiles. It's a new world order.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is on general release from Fri 28 Feb.